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Making crime pay in late eighteenth-century Bristol: stolen goods, the informal economy and the negotiation of risk

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 December 2011

Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester.


This article examines the many ways that stolen goods were sold and circulated in late eighteenth-century Bristol. It argues that while historians have been correct to identify the contemporary importance of second-hand markets and the ‘informal economy’ to the sale of stolen property, some of the ways that stolen goods markets have been described and conceptualised are not fully supported by the evidence from Bristol. This raises questions about the extent to which models of crime based on London can be applied to cities in provincial England. The article also examines the influence that timing, appearance and location had on the way that stolen goods were sold.

Pour que le crime paye à bristol, vers la fin du xviiie siècle: marchandises volées, économie informelle et risque négocié

Cet article examine comment des biens volés ont été vendus et ont pu circuler de diverses façons, à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, à Bristol. C'est à juste titre qu'on a rapproché l'importance du commerce de seconde main et la vitalité de «l'économie informelle», dans cette période, de la fréquente mise sur le marché de biens volés, mais l'exemple que nous apportons de la ville de Bristol remet en cause un certain nombre d'interprétations et de théories antérieurement soutenues par les historiens sur le fonctionnement du marché des biens volés à cette époque. On peut donc se demander dans quelle mesure des modèles de criminalité, reposant sur l'exemple de Londres, peuvent être appliqués aux villes de province en Angleterre. L'article attire également l'attention sur les contraintes que devaient subir les voleurs avant de pouvoir écouler les marchandises qu'ils avaient volées: pour les mettre sur le marché, ils devaient tenir compte de facteurs les concernant tels que le calendrier, l'apparence et le lieu.

Damit das verbrechen sich auszahlt: gestohlene güter, informelle ökonomie und risikostreuung in bristol im 18. jahrhundert

Dieser Beitrag untersucht die vielfältige Weise, in der gestohlene Güter im späten 18. Jahrhundert in Bristol verkauft wurden und zirkulierten. Auch wenn Historiker zu Recht auf darauf hingewiesen haben, wie wichtig damals der Gebrauchtwarenmarkt und die ,,informelle Ökonomie“ für den Absatz gestohlener Güter war, werden dennoch – so die These – einige der Beschreibungen und Modelle der Märkte für Diebesgut durch das Quellenmaterial aus Bristol nur zum Teil bestätigt. Dies wirft die Frage auf, inwiefern Kriminalitätsmodelle, die sich auf London beziehen, auf englische Provinzstädte übertragen werden können. Der Beitrag richtet sein Augenmerk auch darauf, dass die Fähigkeit der Diebe, ihr Diebesgut zu verkaufen, durch verschiedene Faktoren wie z.B. Ort, Zeit und äußeres Erscheinungsbild beeinträchtigt wurde.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 John Beattie, Crime and the courts in England, 1660–1800 (Oxford, 1986), 187.

2 Ibid., 184–9.


3 Ibid., 241.


4 Ibid., 189.


5 Ibid.; John Beattie, Policing and punishment in London, 1660–1750 (Oxford, 2001), 39, 250–1.


6 Peeping Tim, The Honest London Spy (Dublin, 1793), 72. For a survey of contemporary attitudes towards pawnbroking, see Alannah Tomkins, ‘Pawnbroking and the survival strategies of the urban poor in 1770s York’, in Steven King and Alannah Tomkins eds., The poor in England, 1700–1850: an economy of makeshifts (Manchester, 2003), 167–73.

7 Henry Fielding, An enquiry into the causes of the late increase of robbers (London, 1751), 68–76.

8 As Jon Stobart has remarked, our understanding of the full panoply of opportunities for second-hand sale is still poorly developed. See Jon Stobart, ‘Clothes, cabinets and carriages: second-hand dealing in eighteenth-century England’, in B. Blondé, P. Stabel, et al. eds., Buyers and sellers: retail circuits and practices in mediaeval and early modern Europe (Turnhout, 2007), 225. Beverly Lemire has done some excellent work on the second-hand clothing trade but, as Stobart points out, the clothing trade may not be representative of second-hand markets in general; see Stobart, ‘Clothes, cabinets and carriages’. For Lemire's work in relation to stolen clothing, see Lemire, Beverly, ‘The theft of clothes and popular consumerism in early modern England’, Journal of Social History 24 (1990), 255–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Lemire, Beverly, ‘Peddling fashion: salesmen, pawnbrokers, taylors, thieves and the second-hand clothes trade in England, c.1700–1800’, Textile History 22 (1991), 6782CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For second-hand clothing in general, see Lemire, Beverly, ‘Consumerism in pre-industrial and early industrial England: the trade in second-hand clothes’, Journal of British Studies 27 (1988), 124CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Beattie, Crime and the courts, 240–3. For another nuanced survey of the factors which shaped this picture, see Robert Shoemaker, Prosecution and punishment: petty crime and the law in London and Rural Middlesex, c.1660–1725 (Cambridge, 1991), 8–10.

10 Robert Shoemaker, Prosecution and punishment, 284–8.

11 Beattie, Policing and punishment; Beattie, John, ‘Sir John Fielding and public justice: The Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, 1754–1780', Law and History Review 25 (2007), 61100CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Elaine Reynolds, Before the Bobbies: The night watch and police reform in Metropolitan London, 1720–1830 (Basingstoke, 1998); Andrew Harris, Policing the city: crime and legal authority in London, 1780–1840 (Columbus, OH, 2004); Shoemaker, Prosecution and punishment; Drew Gray, Crime, prosecution and social relations: the summary courts of the City of London in the late eighteenth century (Basingstoke, 2009).

13 Peter King, Crime and law in England, 1750–1840: remaking justice from the margins (Cambridge, 2006), 2, 10–35.

14 In addition to Lemire's work cited in n. 8, see MacKay, Lynn, ‘Why they stole: women in the Old Bailey, 1779–1789’, Journal of Social History 32 (1999), 623–39CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

15 Heather Shore, ‘Crime, criminal networks and the survival strategies of the poor in early eighteenth century London’, in King and Tomkins, The poor in England, 137–65; Shore, Heather, ‘Cross coves, buzzers, and general sorts of prigs: juvenile crime and the criminal underworld in the early nineteenth century’, British Journal of Criminology 39 (1999), 1024CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Shore, ‘Crime, criminal networks and the survival strategies of the poor’, 139, 145, 154–6.

17 Shore, ‘Crime, criminal networks and the survival strategies of the poor’, 154; Shore, ‘Cross coves’, 12, 16; Williams, Richard, ‘Stolen goods and the economy of makeshifts in eighteenth century Exeter’, Archives 31 (2005), 87Google Scholar, 93–6.

18 Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, English local government from the revolution to the Municipal Corporations Act: the manor and the borough, book 2 (London, 1908), 443–75; Steve Poole, ‘Scarcity and the civic tradition: market management in Bristol, 1709–1815’, in A. Randall and A. Charlesworth eds., Markets, market culture and popular protest in eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland (Liverpool, 1996), 92–3.

19 Beattie, Crime and the courts, 22.

20 Liverpool overtook Bristol in terms of volume of trade in the 1740s, and population in the 1780s; see Morgan, Kenneth, ‘Bristol and the Atlantic trade in the eighteenth century’, English Historical Review 107 (1992), 627Google Scholar. For the changing population of Bristol, see Rosemary Sweet, The English town, 1680–1840: government, society and culture (Harlow, 1999), 3.

21 Bristol Record Office Quarter Sessions Papers [hereafter BRO] JQS/P/94/18.

22 BRO JQS/P/36/10.

23 Lemire, ‘The theft of clothes’, 258.

24 BRO JQS/P/79/14 (ducks); BRO JQS/P/110/06 (fowls); BRO JQS/P/91/01/03/01 (butter); BRO JQS/P/80/17, BRO JQS/P/156/04 (carpenter's tools); BRO JQS/P/129/unnumbered (23/03/1793), BRO JQS/P/36/06 (plate).

25 BRO JQS/P/147/17, BRO JQS/P/192/19, BRO JQS/P/177/01/02 (lead). For a comment by an accused criminal about the extent of trading in stolen lead, and the difficulties of avoiding purchasing it, see BRO JQS/P/112/06. BRO JQS/P/115/18 (pewter); BRO JQS/P/31/16 (iron and brass); BRO JQS/P/38/02 (copper); BRO JQS/P/99/14a (leather); BRO JQS/P/55/22 (leather); BRO JQS/P/100/02 (a saddle).

26 Elizabeth Baigent, ‘Economy and society in eighteenth-century Bristol’, in D. Denecke ed., Urban historical geography: recent progress in Britain and Germany (Cambridge, 1988), 109–24.

27 BRO JQS/P/74/08. BRO JQS/P/80/02 (sale on the street).

28 BRO JQS/P/80/14.

29 BRO JQS/P/112/15.

30 BRO, Minutes of the House of Commons Committee on the Bristol Dock Act, M/BCC/DOB/1, 19–21. Many mariners imported small quantities of sugar as ‘sea-stores’. A deposition from the early nineteenth century describes an attempt to pass-off stolen sugar as ‘sea stores’, showing that stolen goods could be sold through the same channels as petty smuggling: BRO JQS/P/201/25.

31 BRO JQS/P/112/11.

32 BRO JQS/P/132/05.

33 BRO JQS/P/150/13 (a blacksmith had a man arrested when offered a bag of nails for sale at 4½d per pound, 2d below the usual price).

34 BRO JQS/P/93/02.

35 Lemire, ‘Peddling fashion’, 67–8, 76.

36 Lemire, ‘The theft of clothes and popular consumerism’, 255.

37 BRO JQS/P/115/18.

38 Ibid.


39 BRO JQS/P/36/05 (cheeses); BRO JQS/P/94/13 (barley and malt); BRO JQS/P/142/9a (wheat); BRO JQS/P/147/18 (glassware); BRO JQS/P/67/01 (candles).

40 BRO JQS/P/31/unnumbered (22/03/1771).

41 BRO JQS/P/51/04.

42 BRO JQS/P/129/04.

43 BRO JQS/P/38/02, BRO JQS/P/94/18, BRO JQS/P/112/06, BRO JQS/P/147/17 (metals); BRO JQS/P/151/01 (wheat to victualler); BRO JQS/P/99/14a (repeated sale of leather to leatherworker).

44 For the idea of the receiver as a ‘nexus’ between thieves and markets, see Shore, ‘Cross coves’, 11, 17; and Shore, ‘Crime, criminal networks and the survival strategies of the poor’, 154.

45 In addition to the work by Lemire (see n. 8) and Tomkins (see n. 6) already cited, see Lambert, Miles, ‘“Cast-off wearing apparell”: the consumption and distribution of second-hand clothing in northern England during the long eighteenth century’, Textile History 35 (2004), 126CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Styles, John, ‘Clothing the north: the supply of non-élite clothing in the eighteenth-century north of England’, Textile History 25 (1994), 158–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 Lemire, ‘The theft of clothes’, 258–9; Garthine Walker, ‘Women, theft and the world of stolen goods’, in J. Kermode and G. Walker eds., Women, crime and the courts in early modern England (London, 1994), 91.

47 BRO JQS/P/31/unnumbered (18/03/1771), BRO JQS/P/40/07, BRO JQS/P/55/03.

48 BRO JQS/P/38/14.

49 BRO JQS/P/49/01/09.

50 BRO JQS/P/109/05, BRO JQS/P/121/04/56, BRO JQS/P/140/08.

51 BRO JQS/P/93/16, BRO JQS/P/67/01.

52 For a typical example of a newspaper advertisement, see Felix Farley's Bristol Journal, issue 1731 (19 January 1782). On the Corporation's use of advertising, see Town Clerk's Letter Book (BRO BCC/A/2/12/2), 14.

53 BRO, Chamberlain's Papers, F/AC/Box/101/5, no. 243; BRO JQS/P/63/unnumbered (20/10/1779). These ‘calling’ services were also accessible to private individuals at short notice; see BRO JQS/P/92/01/26.

54 BRO JQS/P/99/18.

55 John Styles, ‘Print and policing: crime advertising in eighteenth-century provincial England’, in D. Hay and F. Snyder eds., Policing and prosecution in Britain, 1750–1850 (Oxford, 1989), 70.

56 BRO JQS/P/99/01.

57 BRO, Chamberlain's Papers, F/AC/Box/81/7. The text of this advertisement indicates that it was printed at short notice, on the same day as the theft.

58 BRO JQS/P/68/07.

59 BRO JQS/P/82/06.

60 See BRO JQS/P/82/06. BRO JQS/P/160/12 also contains evidence to show that thieves read advertisements for crimes that they had committed.

61 BRO JQS/P/82/06.

62 Styles, ‘Print and policing’, 77.

63 BRO JQS/P/129/21 and BRO JQS/P/115/03 (both Bath); BRO JQS/P/80/02, BRO JQS/P/167/06 (both South Wales); BRO JQS/P/91/01/03/01 (London); BRO JQS/P/51/12 (Devon).

64 BRO JQS/P/67/16.

65 BRO JQS/P/82/15.

66 BRO JQS/P/36/12. See also BRO JQS/P/115/03, BRO JQS/P/115/08. Depositions from the Somerset quarter sessions show that Bristol was a popular destination for criminals from Bath; see Somerset Record Office [SRO], Sessions Rolls 355/2/1-57/21, SRO Q/SR 366/1/40, SRO Q/SR 366/1/21 (among many others).

67 BRO JQS/P/101/15.

68 Fielding, Enquiry, 76.

69 Peter King, Crime, justice and discretion in England, 1740–1820 (Cambridge, 2000), 196; Beattie, Crime and the courts, 189–90; Walker, ‘Women, theft and the world of stolen goods’, 91; Tomkins, ‘Pawnbroking and the urban poor’, 181; MacKay, ‘Why they stole’, 630.

70 Garthine Walker, Crime, gender, and social order in early modern England (Cambridge, 2003), 176.

71 This idea of ‘suspicion’ is also an important concept in Sharon Howard's work. See Howard, Sharon, ‘Investigating responses to theft in early modern Wales: communities, thieves and the courts’, Continuity and Change 19 (2004), 409–10CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 415–20.

72 BRO JQS/P/77/unnumbered (9 Nov. 1782). Booth's occupation is recorded as ‘broker’ at the start of the deposition.

73 For the gender balance of pawnshops' users, see Beverly Lemire, The business of everyday life: gender, practice and social politics in England, c. 1600–1900 (Manchester, 2005), 35.

74 BRO JQS/P/178/04.

75 Pennell, Sara, ‘“Pots and pans history”: the material culture of the kitchen in early modern England’, Journal of Design History 11 (1998), 205–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

76 BRO JQS/P/77/03. See also BRO JQS/P/92/01/33, in which a woman was instructed to go to a named pawnbroker.

77 For Maids, see BRO JQS/P/140/08, BRO JQS/P/147/07-08 and BRO JQS/P/55/15. For Williams, see BRO JQS/P/80/28.

78 Numerous brass items sold by the wife. See BRO JQS/P/80/28.

79 BRO JQS/P/86/24. See also BRO JQS/P/137/01/09.

80 For example, Felix Farley's Bristol Journal, issue 1731 (19 January 1782): ‘ANN EVANS is about 22 Years of Age, stout made, of a brown Complexion, fresh colour'd, has a full broad Face, and has lost one of her Front Teeth.’

81 BRO JQS/P/99/15-20. For a woman pawning goods for two wanted highwaymen, see BRO JQS/P/86/06.

82 BRO JQS/P/99/16.

83 BRO JQS/P/99/17. See also BRO JQS/P/110/5b.

84 BRO JQS/P/49/01/02.

85 JQS/P/33/30.

86 The lack of prior acquaintance between thieves and associates is illustrated by the case of Bridget Hayes and Samuel Butler discussed above. For another example in which a woman was approached on the street and asked to sell something in exchange for money, see JQS/P/74/09.

87 See n. 71.

n. 71

88 BRO JQS/P/107/01/18. Other cases where an acquaintance recommended an unfamiliar buyer; see BRO JQS/P/38/17 and BRO JQS/P/129/22.

89 BRO JQS/P/143/10.

90 BRO JQS/P/129/19. See also BRO JQS/P/129/21, in which two burglars got a female acquaintance to find a buyer.

91 Walker, Crime gender and social order, 167.

92 Shore, ‘Crime, criminal networks and the survival strategies of the poor’, 150–5.

93 Ibid., 154.


94 Ibid.


95 Shore, ‘Cross coves’, 11–12.

96 Beattie, Crime and the courts, 241.

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